Wake up! It’s the 30th anniversary of Spike Lee’s ‘School Daze’ In this #BlackLivesMatter era, the ’80s film is still very relevant

It was late summer of 1986. Jasmine Guy was standing on the streets of New York City, fresh out of a dance class at the Alvin Ailey School, when she heard a word unfamiliar to her: Wannabe.

She’d just run into director and eventual cultural purveyor Spike Lee. She first met him back in 1979, when she was a high school senior and he was a senior at Morehouse College who was directing the coronation at the school where she danced. Back then, he was telling folks that he planned to go to film school and had aspirations of being a director — although, at the time, Guy wasn’t entirely sure what that meant.

Spike had some news for her. “I just finished my first movie, you’ve got to see it,” she remembers Lee telling her. He was talking about 1986’s She’s Gotta Have It, which is now of course a lauded Netflix series of the same name. She saw the movie and was mesmerized by the very contemporary piece that was in black and white and dealt with sex, relationships and intimacy. She’s never seen anything like it before. With black people. And she was impressed.

She ran into him again on those New York streets, and this was the time that he added a new word to her lexicon. “I’m doing another movie, and you’re going to be in it, so send me your headshot. You’re going to be a wannabe.” She was confused. “You know how you all are,” she remembers Lee saying. She had no idea what he was talking about. Wannabe.

But she soon learned. As did everyone else who would consume Lee’s epic portrayal of a fictional historically black college in School Daze, a movie that altered how we publicly talked about blackness and historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). For the uninitiated, the idea of a “wannabe” was a caricature of (for the most part) a high-yellow, lighter-skinned woman with long hair whose physical attributes look more European than African. “Wannabe” was also an attitude: Wannabe better than me.

School Daze. It’s been three decades to the day since theaters were lit up with a historically black campus waking up — this was when Nelson Mandela was still locked up, and students called for divestment from South Africa. Three decades since Spike Lee brought us a story of conflict, of when students pledging fictional Greek fraternities were pitted against those who desired global and local social change. The Gamma dogs. The Gamma Rays. The Fellas. The Wannabes. The Jiggaboos — oh yes, the Jiggaboos. School Daze was about the tensions between light-skinned black folks and dark-skinned black folks.

Everything was right there on a 50-foot screen. No escaping it. We had to consume it. And address it. “It was like, Wow, this guy’s really going to go there,” says renowned director Kasi Lemmons, whose first film role was in School Daze. “He’s really going to explore these issues. It occurred to me, when I saw it, how important it was because it explored so many things that you just hadn’t seen.”


In so many ways, School Daze was an extension of what was happening on campuses. It tapped into activations that were happening in the mid-1980s, and after it was released, it inspired and engaged other students, amplifying the work that was already taking place.

Darryl Bell — who was one of the “big brothers” in School Daze, his first role — was quite active as a real-life student at Syracuse University. He attended rallies where black and Latino students were mobilizing, much in the same way that Laurence Fishburne’s Dap did on Lee’s fictional campus of Mission College. In real life, Bell pledged Alpha Phi Alpha.

“I wanted to know more about these Alpha fellas,” says Bell. He remembers seeing them at rallies. “The idea that Alpha men were involved in, and on the forefront of talking about, issues that mattered — the divesting of South Africa — it encouraged me to be part of student government. All of these things … my experience at Syracuse, you saw in the film. … We were engaged in voter registration. We put on a fashion show to raise money to give scholarships to high school students. … That was the life I was living. That’s why I was so desperate to be in the movie. … This is all about me and what I’m living everyday. It was an extraordinary example of art imitating life.”

The film was more than entertainment; even before A Different World, it really illuminated HBCU campus life. It shed a light on colorism, one of the most uncomfortable and unspoken issues among black folks — something we’d been battling for generations and, in a lot of ways, still are.

“There was … division between the men and women,” says Joie Lee, who portrayed Lizzie Life in the film, “in terms of what constitutes beauty. I wasn’t ‘fine.’ I wasn’t considered that. I did not fit that standard of beauty, perhaps because I was brown-skinned. Perhaps because my hair was nappy, and natural. The women that are considered fine … were light-skinned or had ‘good hair’ — I’m using that term loosely. Those were some of the issues that [we were] grappling with.”

Thirty years later, the film still holds up. Replace School Daze’s international concerns with the Black Lives Matter movement and the activism, especially in this current political climate, most certainly feels familiar. “It does have a relevance to what’s going on today,” says Kirk Taylor, who portrayed one of the Gammas. “In terms of the look, in terms of the content, in terms of the final message about waking up … we need to wake up as much now as we did then — and stay awake. It’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of security, or false peace, and not be aware that things still need to be addressed. Things still need to be changed.”

Stay woke, indeed.

Happy birthday, Oprah! Take a look at 10 times she wowed us all Today, we celebrate our favorite media mogul on her 64th birthday

Happy birthday to the woman who has been a source of inspiration to all — Oprah! Take a look at the 10 times Oprah wowed us all.

1985 — She performed in one of the best black cult classics, The Color Purple.

There will never be a day where The Color Purple is not referenced in some way, shape or form. The popular 1985 film — based on the best-selling 1982 novel written by Alice Walker — has since been used in the form of memes and GIFs on social media, and in more serious settings such as university lectures. In 2016, an interview with entertainment website Collider was published regarding Oprah’s role as the headstrong, fierce and proud Sofia. The media mogul explained how her role as changed her life:

The Color Purple changed my life. It changed everything about my life because, in that moment of praying and letting go, I really understood the principle of surrender. The principle of surrender is that, after you have done all that you can do, and you’ve done your best and given it your all, you then have to release it to whatever you call God, or don’t call God. It doesn’t matter because God doesn’t care about a name. You just release it to that which is greater than yourself, and whatever is supposed to happen, happens. And I have used that principle about a million times now. You release it to Grace. So, when you see me in this movie, I had never been happier in my life. It is the reason why I ended up owning my own show.”

1986 — Oprah earned her college degree and racked up a bunch more along the way.

Oprah may have earned her undergraduate degree from the historically black Tennessee State University, but the talk show host has collected honorary degrees through years from colleges such as Howard, Princeton, Harvard, Duke and the University of the Free State in South Africa. This was also the same year her very first daytime talk show, The Oprah Winfrey Show, debuted. It was the first successful year of a 25-season run.

1988 — The Skinheads episode of Oprah.

The Oprah Winfrey Show had only debuted two years earlier, yet Oprah was taking on one of the most polarizing moments in the show’s history. A black woman purposely inviting a group of white supremacists to expose ignorance and confront hate was a pretty bold move, but there were some very important lessons learned that day.

The white supremacists riled the audience with their sentiments that only white people created the country, and “blacks still lived in the jungles of Africa.” Oprah was even called a monkey on her very own show.

Twenty years later, Oprah expressed how that particular show changed the way she chose her show’s topics. “I realized in that moment that I was doing more to empower them than I was to expose them,” Oprah said during a 2006 interview. “And since that moment, I’ve never done a show like that again.”

2000 — If having her own show wasn’t enough, Oprah launched her own magazine.

In 1999, Oprah fans were thrilled to learn the queen of daytime television would be launching her own publication and when the first issue arrived in 2000, supporters ran to the closest stands to grab their copies. Eighteen years later, O, The Oprah Magazine remains one of the most successful women’s magazines on shelves. And like the boss she is, Oprah has featured herself on every cover of the magazine. Only a few of her closest friends have had the honor of sharing the cover alongside her.

2004 — “Everybody gets a car!”

It was certainly the happiest day in the show’s history for audience members of The Oprah Winfrey Show, who all received a new Pontiac G6 from Mrs. Oprah Claus herself (maybe she wore that stunning red dress for a reason!). The episode still remains in Oprah’s 25 Most Unforgettable Oprah Show Moments.

2007 — Oprah opened a school for girls in South Africa.

Oprah’s global humanitarian efforts increased in 2007 when the TV personality opened the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls near Johannesburg. Oprah’s motivation to get the school completed was, in part, due to a promise she made to South African revolutionary Nelson Mandela.

“I wanted to give this opportunity to girls who had a light so bright that not even poverty could dim that light,” Oprah said at a news conference at the time. “If you are surrounded by beautiful things and wonderful teachers who inspire you, that beauty brings out the beauty in you.”

2011 — Oprah launches the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN).

And what happens when you think you’ve acquired everything you could to build your brand? You OWN a network. Oprah took sole advantage of that feeling of pride, evident by the network’s acronym. Oprah shared her feelings on starting the network with readers shortly before its launch:

“I’m in the countdown to the end of the great phenomenon of my life. Headed off to launch a network of shows intended to do what The Oprah Winfrey Show and this magazine have done for years: inspire and entertain. Everything you’ve ever done prepares you for all that you can do and be. So I move forward to start a new chapter with the lessons I’ve learned and the strength I’ve gained. OWN debuts January 1; in its kickoff year, we’ve planned more than 600 hours of new programs. To fill the time 24/7/365, you need close to 9,000. We have a lot of work ahead. You can see why I hesitated for a moment. Do I really want to take this on? But the launch is just the beginning of what will eventually be a channel filled with creative, meaningful, and mindful programming.”

2013 — Oprah received one of her most important honors: The Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Oprah has collected quite an impressive collection of hardware throughout the years, but her 2013 addition was one that left Oprah beaming as then-President Barack Obama presented her with the highest civilian honor a president can bestow. The honor was bestowed upon Oprah for being “one of the world’s most successful broadcast journalists.

2015 — Oprah also continued her health journey by buying 10 percent of Weight Watchers.

Oprah has publicly shared her weight loss journey with supports over the years, but investing in Weight Watchers was a pleasant, yet unexpected next step. “Weight Watchers has given me the tools to begin to make the lasting shift that I and so many of us who are struggling with weight have longed for,” Oprah said in a statement. “I believe in the program so much I decided to invest in the company and partner in its evolution.” Stocks rose 105 percent after Oprah announced she would not only being investing, but also joining the Weight Watchers board. She has made roughly $300 million with the company since 2015.

2017 — In a candid moment, Oprah shows us why everyone needs a best friend like her.

A video of Oprah caringly, yet jokingly telling her best friend Gayle King that she needed to lotion her elbows was the best thing to happen to the internet that week. Oprah and Gayle’s friendship have been documented throughout the years from road trips to sit-down interviews. This was just a small reminder and rather funny reminder of how real their friendship is.

From Chicago to the Congo, Nate Fluellen is sharing his experiences in the Urban Movie Channel’s new travel series The travel vlogger and HBCU grad is living his wildest dreams

When Nathan Fluellen’s international economics professor at Tennessee State University (TSU) challenged him to travel to more places than him, he accepted. Professor Galen Hull had visited more than 80 places around the country, and that concept intrigued Fluellen.

The ideology was not new to him. He grew up in a household where his mother embarked upon mission trips abroad, and his cousins spent time working and living overseas.

“She had been in Brazil four or five times, South Africa, Italy and Egypt,” Fluellen said.

So he set out to travel the world, documenting his experiences and branding himself as World Wide Nate.

Now he has landed a 13-episode reality travel show on the Urban Movie Channel (UMC). In World Wide Nate: African Adventures, a crew follows the Chicago native as he hikes the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s mountains, cruises the world’s largest lava lake, rappels alongside a 600-foot-tall waterfall in Lesotho and treks through the Rwandan jungle alongside silverback gorillas and more.

“Me, a kid from the South Side of Chicago, was walking in the footsteps of my ancestors seeing the same majestic mountain ridges. I was speechless,” Fluellen says in the first episode, with more new shows to return in the spring.

Fluellen’s exploits include food, culture and fun, and he offers viewers the opportunity to experience Africa through his charm and adventures.

According to his website, in March 2016 he became one of the first sponsored U.S. tourists to visit Cuba in more than 50 years. His adventures have been sponsored by Chase Bank, Marriott, Time, Fortune, Travel + Leisure, Ford and Lincoln Motors, Essence.com, Ebony.com, Mensfitness.com, AOL.com and the South African Tourism Board. He is a three-time winner of LAWebfest’s most outstanding series and series host.

After graduating from historically black TSU in 2004 with a degree in economics, Fluellen decided to take his first trip, recalling the challenge from his professor. He set his sights on Barcelona, Spain.

“It’s the city that’s romanticized about, and just being a Michael Jordan fan growing up, and the Barcelona Olympics, it was exciting,” he said. “I’m an adventurous person. I’ve always been an explorer. Prior to me going, I had started taking Spanish classes at the Tennessee Foreign Language Institute. I met new people from all over the world, and other professional athletes. I’m meeting them and they’re just happy to see another black person. It was an eye-opening experience. I felt like I was finally living my dream of being an international man of leisure.”

Fluellen’s vision initially was to write a book capturing his travel experiences. He thought he would create a book that would include the push of a button to play a video — but then came the iPad, he explained.

So the 36-year-old opted for an online blog experience and started chronicling his journey on MySpace when the social media forum was most popular.

“I would just write, ‘Day One, this is what I did, from sunrise to sunset,’ and people would just read it and be like, ‘Oh, that was tight. That was dope.’ So I had bought a better camera, a digital camera, then I bought a camcorder, then bought a better camcorder, and I started recording my videos and taught myself how to edit on Final Cut Express.”

A friend from college who had a knack for editing videos reached out to Fluellen, and they founded his webisodes. Fluellen’s cousin introduced him to the digital director at Ebony, who hired him as a travel editor on a gig that took him to the Bahamas to cover the 2006 Miss Universe pageant. This is when his journey took off in the paid space.

“It was superfun, and that’s when I met other travel people and learned about press trips,” he said. “I was just really learning the game, as far as how people are making it into a career, and this is like my passion.”

Fluellen said the hardest part of his journey was lack of financing.

“It’s like when people ask you, ‘Pick something that you love so much that if you didn’t get paid, you’d do it every day,’ ” he said. “There’s been days I ain’t get paid, and I’m still doing it. There wasn’t always a lot of money in the industry. And then it was like the cat-and-mouse game, where they understood the value but then they kind of wanted to see how much experience you had, to see if they wanted to pay you your value or not. And then now, people understand the value of video content.”

The most interesting place Fluellen has visited is Rwanda.

“It was so clean, and the people were just so brown and chocolate. And the landscape was so green and lush. Rwanda was unique.”

Living in Los Angeles, he also has a passion for health and fitness. He trains six days a week and participates in boxing, body weight and core exercises.

“I’ve always played basketball growing up. I played a little football, did some track, some high jumps. I took weight training classes and always kept my ear to the fitness and the importance of diet [at TSU].

He does boxing training, yoga, surfing and rock climbing and includes eating a balanced meal as a core principle of fitness. His clean diet includes foods high in protein and low in carbs. He’s incorporated this lifestyle into his travels, sharing his Train Hard Thursday workouts and cheat day meals on Fried Chicken Friday with his social media followers.

“I have to have a cheat day,” Fluellen said. “I eat pretty healthy. I’ll usually cook some salmon, kale and some asparagus, avocado and tomato. I’ll eat that all during the week.”

Giving back is also at the top of Fluellen’s list of priorities. He joined RakLife, an organization that uses random acts of kindness as a mantra to help the less fortunate around the world on a recent trip to Paje, Zanzibar, where they helped feed 300 elderly citizens. He is also interested in starting a scholarship fund at his alma mater that will send students abroad to study in Colombia.

Miss Jamaica, Davina Bennett, makes lemonade out of lemons The beauty queen made getting second runner-up to Miss Universe a win — Afro and all

Miss Jamaica emerged from a field of 92 contestants, rocking a #BlackGirlMagic ’fro, to be second runner-up in the 2017 Miss Universe pageant. Davina Bennett talks to The Undefeated’s Mark W. Wright about her ascension.


When I stood there next to Miss South Africa and Miss Colombia — as one of the last three of 92 contestants in the Miss Universe pageant, with the very real possibility of being crowned Miss Universe 2017 — of course I was nervous, but it was hardly as traumatic an experience as I’ve had. (Miss South Africa 2017, Demi-Leigh Nel-Peters, was crowned Miss Universe.)

It was the scariest moment of my life. Two gunmen came out of nowhere. I was thrown to the ground — we were all faced down, execution style, while they took all our belongings … holding the gun by our heads and cursing at us. And, you know, in that moment in time, I can tell you that I didn’t believe I was going to live to see another day. I was really just praying that my family would be all right and cope with what seemed inevitable.

After the robbers had taken our belongings — money, equipment — they told us to just get up and run. They were just standing there, and we got even more scared. The thought that came into my mind was, ‘OK, they’re probably going to shoot us from behind.’ We did as we were told and just ran. They had taken all that we had, but you know what, we had life. It really was a traumatizing situation, but I can say today, nine months later, that it was really another steppingstone for me to realize that I have a purpose and I am here to do greater things.

Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

That night of the Miss Universe pageant, I was really just hoping for the best. I knew I’d done my best, and I’d said everything from my heart. I didn’t have doubt — nerves, yes. But not doubt. When Steve Harvey called my name first, I was a little bit disappointed at first, but seeing the reaction from the crowd — and hearing chants of, ‘Jamaica! Jamaica!’ — I felt like a winner. My fellow contestants came to me with hugs and good wishes. Coming back home to Jamaica, of course, was the icing on the cake.

Davina “Miss Jamaica” Bennett: ‘I must do something bigger with my life’

Even though I’m 21, I’ve had quite a number of challenges in my life to get to this point, but I believe it’s all prepared me for the now. In 2015, I had gone to London twice and to New York once, going from agency to agency, looking to get signed. At one point, I’d gone to probably between 15 to 20 agencies. And every agency would say I’m not quite what they’re looking for, or I’m not tall enough. It was always something. After the third time going to London … I just said, ‘You know what, maybe this is not for me.’ And, shortly after the London trip, I lost my grandma as well. So I gave up completely. And that’s how I partnered with Caribbean Sway Modeling Agency here in Jamaica as a director and modeling coach to train the girls and share my experiences with them, to help them maximize their true potential.

In that process of helping those models, I was blessed to work with Britney Barnes, a deaf model, which then became my inspiration to start the Davina Bennett Foundation for the Deaf.

I think back to that robbery and how I almost lost my life. I had my moment of depression after that time, but … I lived, and I must do something bigger with my life.

Growing up, I was loved. I was always teacher’s pet, yes, but I was never the girl who stood out, or was outspoken. I would be in the back of the room because I was very shy and reserved. … I was really that girl on the back bench [in the classroom] looking at the girls on front benches and saying, ‘I wish I could be them.’

So public speaking wasn’t my strong point, and speaking is a big part of the Miss Universe pageant. Having gone through that experience, it’s now something I’m not so afraid to take on. I don’t think I would say I’ve conquered it because there’s so much more to learn, but I’ve gotten a little bit more comfortable.

Miss Jamaica 2017 Davina Bennett

Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

To be very honest, this is more than I expected, the impact this Miss Universe experience has had on me, and on people. I was surprised and shocked, even the day after, with social media and the reaction to me. I’m still in awe. I’m getting so many messages, so many people telling me how I’m a great representation of Jamaica and girls everywhere. I’m really just grateful that everyone has accepted how I carried myself on the international stage.

It does get overwhelming sometimes, but nothing in life is easy, and you really have to fight for what you want. I have always been a fighter; there’s always challenges, but I try to overcome and have a strong mindset about how you deal with the problem and find solutions.

I’m a winner. Yes, I heard the rumblings on social that I could never be crowned Miss Universe because of my hair, or because I’m Jamaican. I heard all of that — and saw the #MissJamaicaShouldHaveWon hashtag on social media. But I wasn’t really listening to all of that; my message is simple: ‘Despite race or ethnicity or whatever your background, anybody can win.’

I returned home to Jamaica, getting off the plane to shouts of ‘Jamaica! Jamaica!’ It was a beautiful celebration. There was a huge adrenaline rush to just conquer anything that came my way. I was always the bridesmaid — always finishing second, and third, or not even being picked — until the Miss Universe competition. Now I can finally say, ‘Oh, my goodness — I’ve finally won.’

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Whitley’s World: A brief history of Bad and Boujee Black Girl Style Jasmine Guy’s Gilbert is the blueprint for ‘Insecure’s’ Molly, ‘Dear White People’s’ Coco, and ‘Living Single’s’ Regine

No other show explored the life of coeds from a historically black college as thoroughly as NBC’s A Different World. The show’s colorful characters gave us everything we didn’t know we needed, from a young black man who made solving for x extremely sexy to a free-spirited redhead who would certainly be on the frontlines of any and every Black Lives Matter protest today.

But if “bad and boujee” was trademarked last year by Migos, it originated on the fictional Hillman College campus and was created by the grande dame of the dorm known as Gilbert Hall: Whitley Marion Gilbert. The Louis Vuitton luggage-toting, siditty Southern belle, as portrayed by Jasmine Guy, had a legacy at the prestigious university that went back generations. At 5-foot-2, her frame was petite, but her style was colossal. The Whitley character not only reflected the most fashionable trends of the ’80s and ’90s, but she also influences contemporary style and serves as an inspiration for many young black women and black creatives today.

As one of the first examples of young, black affluence on television, Whitley paved the way for a long list of pivotal TV personalities. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’s Hilary Banks, Saved by the Bell’s Lisa Turtle, Living Single’s Regine Hunter, CluelessDionne Davenport, GirlfriendsToni Childs, Dear White People’s Colandrea “Coco” Conners and even Insecure’s Molly Carter all seem to draw inspiration from the Richmond, Virginia-born beauty queen who, now via streaming apps, continues to personify the style and essence of bad and boujee black girls everywhere.

“She’s not about trying to be white, or anything else — she’s being very black, and this is a very black situation.”

Her impact also went beyond the small screen. In 2015, when the show became available to stream on Netflix — its license agreement expired in 2017, and it is now available on Amazon Prime — Pinterest boards, Instagram handles and Halloween costumes (including one from yours truly) dedicated to mimicking Whitley’s style became a dime a dozen. But imitation certainly is the highest form of flattery, and nobody knows that better than Whitley Gilbert.


The Devil is in the Details

Thirty years ago this week, we got a first-class ticket to a historically black college in Virginia. A group of students evolved from inexperienced adolescents to dynamic adults. From 1987 to 1992 we came to know and love Dwayne Wayne’s nerdy swag, Whitley Gilbert’s siditty style, Freddie Brooks’ free-spirited eccentricity, Kimberly Reese’s steadfast levelheadedness and Ron Johnson’s zany antics. And although the show initially aimed to follow the coed life of Cosby kid Denise Huxtable (Lisa Bonet), it shifted its focus in the second season to the whole crew’s college experience and to Whitley and Dwayne’s love story.

A Different World touched on relevant social themes such as workplace sexual harassment and racial injustice, and it celebrated black heritage. It also featured iconic dayplayers such as Patti LaBelle, Diahann Carroll, Whoopi Goldberg, Jada Pinkett and even Tupac Shakur, ushering in a wave of classic black television shows. “It deepened,” said Jasmine Guy, “the tone of black sitcoms.” Guy is currently filming Mario Van Peebles’ new SyFy series Superstition, as well as season two of BET’s The Quad, which is set at a historically black college not named Hillman.

The cast of A Different World

NBCU Photo Bank

To authentically portray her, Guy says, she created a backstory for Whitley that helped bring her to life. She decided Whitley had attended a primarily white, private school — so for her, Hillman’s campus truly was a different world. “She thought she was black, and she is. But there are all different kinds of ways to be black,” Guy said. “And … the Hillman College experience gave her a new sense of who she was and the community she belonged to. I noticed in the writing how she grew. Over the arc of a season you could see that that character had a lot to learn.”

The show was mostly written by Susan Fales-Hill and Yvette Lee Bowser. Creating a character with as much style development as Whitley, and the whole A Different World crew, started with the script, says Ceci, who worked as costume designer on the show for five seasons (1989-92).

“You can’t unsee A Different World. You’ve seen it, it’s kind of engraved in your psyche.”

“The inspiration comes first from the writing,” she said. “[It] shaped who these characters are, absolutely and situationally. … Whitley is waking up in the morning, but what is she waking up to do? You should be able to turn your TV on mute … and kinda know what’s going on when you see the character. I’m supporting the dialogue and the intentions that the writer and director are trying to convey. I’m doing that visually, through the wardrobe.”

Ceci’s resume includes work on iconic shows such as Living Single and Sister, Sister (both of which are apparently being rebooted) and now she is drawing on that experience: She’s costume designer on Netflix’s Dear White People. Each of these shows features personalities communicated via style, a characteristic she says was used deeply on A Different World. “You’d never see Freddie Brooks wearing anything the Whitley character would wear,” she said. “Jaleesa wouldn’t wear anything Whitley would wear. Each of those characters are … being true to who they are.”

Whitley Gilbert is certainly in a world of her own. There aren’t many episodes in which the girl with the sass and twang isn’t draped in Chanel suits and/or silk scarves. Unlike so many college students who roll out of bed in sweats, Whitley spends her days in heels, fur coats and pearls. “She’s a society girl,” says Mel Grayson, a designer who worked on the show’s early seasons before Ceci took over as costume designer. “She was highfalutin.’ ”

Grayson, a Dallas native, drew his inspiration for Whitley from his own upbringing — and shows that featured affluent characters like the women of CBS’ Dallas (1978-91). “I kept it sexy and hip, taking elements of French couture … elements of Southern church ladies who sat in the front row,” he said. “I’d take a bit of that kind of styling and move it down a few levels. Cut off the shoulder pads, kill the big heels and the big ruffles but still make her regal, and still make her stand out as somebody that had class.”

Whitley’s wardrobe wasn’t cheap. Both Ceci and Grayson say they shopped at high-end stores such as the Dallas-based Neiman Marcus but also had to get creative to stretch what was a meager budget. They augmented new purchases with consignment shop pieces. Tailoring was important: It was hard to come by clothes that fit Guy’s petite frame. “There were clothes that you’d know [were] quality just by the way they fit the body,” Grayson said.

NBCU Photo Bank

“Everything had to be altered to fit her perfectly,” said Ceci. “Thought was given to each decision — is this fitting too close, or too tight? No, she’d wear silk, she wouldn’t wear cotton. She’d wear probably pink, not black. Black is too harsh. Every time you look at Whitley, she’s not out-of-place. Everything about her is supporting this one style aesthetic.”

Ceci would often swap basic original buttons for gold ones, or choose a classic pump over a slouched boot. The key was to capture an authentically upscale young black woman who consistently remained true to herself. Would Whitley wear an unbuttoned blazer? Would she ever have a pimple? If so, how many? That pimple question alone sparked a production meeting debate that lasted at least 30 minutes.

“Those are the details,” said Ceci, “that help subconsciously round out a character.”


Boujee — and black

The first season of A Different World received scathing reviews and is often ranked last on lists of fans’ favorite seasons. Season four — it begins with Whitley’s epic shade toward Dwayne’s new girlfriend, Kinu, and ends with Dwayne asking Whitley to marry him — is the best season, by far. And while season two was a goodbye to Bonet’s Denise Huxtable storyline and a largely white production staff, it was a hello for legendary director and producer Debbie Allen, who ensured the show was both authentic and unapologetic.

During Allen’s tenure, the show created endless opportunities for black Hollywood professionals and designers. The Howard alum even took the writing staff on “annual field trips” to the Clark Atlanta, Spelman and Morehouse campuses for inspiration. What emerged was a show that was very black. “When Debbie Allen came on the show in the second season, she made it more specific, and more clear who all these people were — including Whitley,” Guy said. “Because she did know people like that. She brought little things like, ‘How can y’all have a cafeteria with no hot sauce on the table?’ ”

Despite Whitley’s often insufferable entitlement and occasional disregard for peers outside of her tax bracket — in one episode she defends Kimberly’s scholarship from a company that hasn’t divested from South Africa and separates herself from the anti-apartheid struggle with a flippant “I don’t know those people” — Whitley maintains a shatterproof pride in her blackness.

“When Debbie Allen came on the show in the second season, she made it more specific, and more clear who all these people were — including Whitley.”

“Yes, she’s a socialite, she’s got her nose in the air, she’s got great hair — and it’s straight,” said Grayson. “She’s got a light complexion; she could pass the paper bag test. But she’s a girl that wants to be a black girl. She’s not about trying to be white, or anything else. She’s being very black, and this is a very black situation.”

“There’s a distinction,” Guy said. “And I guess that’s why they call it ‘bad and boujee,’ because there are bougie black people that are not trying to be white. I think that is a misnomer that Whitley was WHITEly. I was determined not to go into that direction because this kind of character does exist in the black community and has the same issues as her friends.”

For Ceci, communicating that black self-confidence through Whitley’s clothing meant altering the styles that luxury brands were creating, particularly as those styles weren’t often intended for black girls.

“A lot of times when you go to high-end stores, that classic look is a color palette that is better for blond hair and blue eyes,” said Ceci. “We can wear those colors, [and] we can be more bold. I tried to let Whitley … not try to emulate what an affluent white person would look like but what an affluent African-American young woman in college would look like. But that really didn’t exist [on television]. It was up to me to imagine what that looked like. The trick with her was trying to make her look affluent but still approachable.”

Throughout the show, Whitley comes to life draped in jeweled tones rather than monochromatic. She’ll wear cream pants with an emerald blouse, or pair a black pencil skirt with a golden peplum blazer. A delicately placed broach here. A chain-linked belt there. Classic, polished styles mixed with elements of youth. “The trick with her was color,” said Ceci. “If I couldn’t find something colorful, I would often dye things. If she wore all taupes and beiges it would be like, ‘OK, who are you?’ ”

Maintaining that authenticity was particularly important when it came to portraying Whitley’s wedding day. This was long before wildly popular black wedding sites and Instagram handles like Munaluchi Bride existed. Seeing a black woman in a bridal gown was rare. “Bride’s magazine would never, ever have anybody of color in their magazine,” said Bethann Hardison, a pioneering African-American runway model and advocate for runway diversity whose son, Kadeem, portrayed Dwayne Wayne. “If they thought to do it, it was maybe a bridesmaid — but that came a lot later. We never saw anyone in a bridal gown that was of color.”

NBCU Photo Bank

A Different World’s pivotal 1992 wedding episode gave viewers something they couldn’t get anywhere else. It not only featured iconic guests — including Joe Morton, Diahann Carroll and Orlando Jones, among others — but it also served up the proverbial peak of Dwayne and Whitley’s relationship. Whitley had been dating future senator Byron Douglas III (portrayed by Morton) and was at the altar when Dwayne interrupted, asking her to reconsider.

According to Guy, the whole scene was done in one take, and Dwayne’s epic “Baby, please!” followed by Carroll’s “Die, just die!” weren’t actually written into the script. The episode — in which Guy wore a delicately embroidered fit-and-flare gown with puffed, capped sleeves reminiscent of Princess Diana’s and a dramatic train with bow detail — put black and bridal in the same sentence long before anyone else would. And if anyone knows how to dress for a momentous occasion, it’s Whitley Gilbert. So the pressure was on.

“We were trying to go with something that was sophisticated but still Southern,” said Ceci. “Something that had some sweetness … not over the top but still a little sexy. It had to have a little bit of everything … this one dress, striking the balance of demure but still sophisticated — and not too mature or revealing.” Unlike other episodes where she had the chance to communicate who Whitley was in multiple outfits, Ceci had to sum up all the character’s elements in one ensemble. “Wedding dresses are a challenge,” she said. “I’ve got one shot.”

The pressure was also on for Guy, who knew seeing a black bride on television was particularly significant for young black women. “Little girls dream of those things, and they don’t necessarily know it’s possible for them,” she said. “All the little girls are looking at Whitley being bougie, getting knocked down, getting up and then realizing, ‘Look at what she had to learn before she got married.’ That’s what I’m hoping young people will see: Look what it took to get to this point, and look how it’s worth it.”

The gown, which was made in-house rather than purchased, not only matched Whitley’s boujee bridal needs but also echoed Bethann Hardison’s words to magazine editors: “Black people get married too.”


Whitley’s World

The impact of A Different World goes far beyond the small screen. Its storylines tackled topics such as HIV/AIDS, interracial dating and apartheid — and enrollment at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) drastically increased while the show was on in prime time. “The show was so contemporary at that moment,” said Bethann Hardison. “A Different World was the first show that ever tackled all the issues, from date rape to race relations. It’s a show that stands the test of time.”

Networks also started making room for more black TV shows. “We were a part of a wave,” said Guy. “I didn’t realize that we were the end of the wave. I thought the business had changed. And then it went back to very few black people. It wasn’t until cable, and the birth of all these other outlets, that the networks couldn’t afford to be so cocky about what they put on and don’t put on.”

As for Whitley, her style and boldness showed up in other shows. In the 1990s, the presence of affluent young black women became less rare with the creation of characters such as Lark Voorhies’ Lisa Turtle, Karyn Parsons’ Hilary Banks, or even Stacy Dash’s Dionne Davenport. There was also another strain of young female TV personalities who weren’t born with money but via hard work became accustomed to the finer things in life, such as Kim Fields’ Regine Hunter, Jill Marie Jones’ Toni Childs and Antoinette Robertson’s Coco Conners. That sensibility is also evident in Insecure’s Molly on HBO, as portrayed by Yvonne Orji, whose power suits and fashion sense are a contemporary remix on Whitley’s wardrobe. There’s also, of course, Olivia Pope of Scandal, who stakes a claim to bad and boujee herself.

“I think that is a misnomer that Whitley was WHITEly. I was determined not to go into that direction.”

The HBO show’s costume designer, Ayanna James, recently talked to Fashionista about the inspirations for Molly’s character. “As far as examples we’ve had on television, we have Kerry Washington on Scandal … who is a very popular character for her fashion, but that’s somebody that is a bit more confident than Molly. The inspiration behind Molly was, ‘What would a lawyer look like if she was really, really into fashion? If she was the person who might take a weekend off to go to New York Fashion Week?’ She lives in L.A., she makes money, she works in an office … run by the old boys’ club, so how do we balance that to make it fashionable and make it relevant?”

“I saw a lot of Whitley-esque influence in a lot of characters,” said Grayson. “In Living Single and Girlfriends. They were a bit more risqué, but they had that same sensibility.”

Ceci said she wasn’t as aware of the influence in real time. But looking back, she sees correlations. However, she said the clothes she chose for characters such as Regine and Coco signify more aspirational efforts than did Hillman’s own pride and joy. “The Regine character, she is like a Whitley character. She wasn’t born with money. She has … humble beginnings and is a little more sassy and expressive,” said Ceci. “Coco didn’t have the affluence that the Whitley character has. So while there might be some parallels in terms of trying to be pulled together … those two characters are never gonna be able to hit the mark in terms of the polish and the etiquette of the Whitley character.”

Guy said she was more aware of women who paved the way for her as Carroll did in Dynasty (1981-89). While she agrees that both Hilary Banks and Regine Hunter fall into the same category as Whitley, she said they each had unique characteristics. “We were all a part of that theme, we were just different in our bougieness,” she said.

Both Grayson and Ceci acknowledge that although Whitley can be antagonistic, even when you hate her, you still want to dress like her. “Now when kids look at Whitley,” said Ceci, “they feel like she’s like a baby baller. They’re like, ‘I wanna look like her when I grow up.’ ”

“It just made young girls realize that you don’t have to be that … dowdy girl and just wear … jeans and your old flannel shirt,” said Grayson. “You can pull yourself together and go to school … and look a little more elegant, and not care what other people have to say about that — because you wanna be dressed.”

And Ceci is proud and humble at the same time. “You can’t unsee A Different World,” she said. “You’ve seen it. It’s kind of engraved in your psyche. And perhaps subliminally that’s a reference point, or even consciously. … I don’t know if I defined what African-American female affluence was at that time, but … I’m just coming to embrace the impact the show had, and my part in it … I feel proud and privileged and honored to have … been a part of that.”

As a fan of fashionable jewels and a curator of fine art, Whitley knows that reprints are acceptable. But there’s nothing like the original. Although her character set a part of #blackgirlmagic in motion, no one has matched her level of polished sophistication, and perhaps no one ever will. Ms. Gilbert would have it no other way.

Television anchor Jim Vance was a hero in black Washington A fixture on the local news for four decades, he died of cancer

Back in the day, Jim Vance used to double-park his cream Mercedes 450 SL outside Roland’s grocery store on Pennsylvania Avenue in Southeast D.C. He’d run in, grab a magazine, some Junior Mints, often a pack of Marlboro Reds, and dap up every soul in the store who recognized him before peeling away.

This was 1979, when local TV news was king and most every American news anchor was white. The nation’s potentates and poseurs ran the country just down the street. But to black Washington, Vance was a hero, anchoring the leading local news show in the nation’s capital for more than four decades.

Young’uns and old heads alike beamed with pride at his accomplishments and what he represented: an elite African-American professional, playing by his rules.

“They thought he was working for them — and he was,” recalled Scott Towle.

Towle was 20, stocking shelves and working as a cashier at Roland’s in 1979. Today, he is another Washingtonian who felt as if he lost a family member when NBC’s WRC-TV announced Vance had died of cancer Saturday morning — just two months after he told viewers about his diagnosis.

“He became the embodiment of black Washington,” said his widow, Kathy McCampbell Vance, whom Vance often credited with saving him from cocaine addiction in the mid-1980s. They were married in 1987. Through separations and an on-and-off-again courtship, she’d been his closest companion for 40 years.

“He lived in Southeast, in a black neighborhood in Capitol Hill, for years,” she added. “Vance was a bootstraps kind of guy. He was just smart. And he had so much personality and charisma.”

If Birth of the Cool belonged to Miles Davis, Vance was the Continuum of Cool. He read the news with a jazzy syncopation, enunciating every sentence just so. In television, a world of harried producers and directors, he moved at the speed of … Jim Vance. If time hadn’t stood still for him, at least the 6 and 11 o’clock newscasts did.

Jim Vance (left) and Doreen Gentzler prepare to return to the live broadcast after a commercial break.

Andre Chung for The Washington Post via Getty Images

I met him in 2005 through sportscaster George Michael, who invited me to be a panelist on his NBC Washington sports shows. Vance was an unabashed local sports fan who formed a close relationship with Hall of Fame NFL coach Joe Gibbs and many of the team’s best players during Washington’s three Super Bowl victories between 1983 and 1992. He pined for the day when the Wizards would hoist the NBA trophy like Wes Unseld’s Bullets did in 1978. Vance was always curious what Gilbert Arenas was really like, why Stephen Strasburg always looked so angry for a man paid millions to play a child’s game and why Dan Snyder kept getting in his own way, “because Lord knows I know what that’s about,” he told me.

When Michael died in 2010, Vance took it hard and delivered a profound eulogy for his friend. “George Michael was the first man to tell me he loved me,” he said. “When I told him that the L-word made me feel uncomfortable, George replied, ‘Get over it.’ ”

Vance grew up in Ardmore, a suburb of Philadelphia. His father, James Howard Vance Jr., drank heavily, dying of cirrhosis when Jim was 9. His mother left him in the care of his grandparents. He blamed his father’s death on himself, once lamenting, “I was convinced I was such a piece of s— that he’d rather die than hang out with me.” He earned a degree in secondary education from Cheyney University, a historically black college where he roomed with Ed Bradley, the longtime 60 Minutes correspondent.

He taught high school English for three years and got a job as a television reporter in Philadelphia through a career placement agency in 1968. With America’s racial cauldron boiling, he was recruited to Washington within a year. By 1972, he would become NBC4’s lead news anchor for much of the next five decades.

Winner of 19 Emmy Awards, Vance went to Vietnam. To South Africa. And to Southeast D.C. He fished with President George H.W. Bush. Former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry sought out Vance first after being arrested in 1990 for smoking crack cocaine.

Vance knew where the mayor had been, because he once put himself through the same hell. He entered the Betty Ford Center in 1984 after many years of free-basing cocaine. But he relapsed upon returning to town.

“This was the pre-crack cocaine era,” Kathy Vance said. “I just think free-basing was so seductive to Vance that it just pulled him in.” At his lowest, Vance stuck the shotgun he used for bird hunting in his mouth one evening out by Great Falls, but he didn’t pull the trigger.

Vance’s sobriety from cocaine, which began in 1985, lasted until he died. He became active in Washington 12-step groups, partnering with longtime advocate and D.C. politico Johnny Allem in 1991 to open the Cardozo Club at 14th and V streets, which catered to some of the city’s poorest in need of a recovery group, and the nonprofit Columbia Recovery Center.

By 1989, he had combined forces with Doreen Gentzler, weatherman Bob Ryan and Michael. Ratings soared. More people in Washington watched NBC4 for the next 20-plus years than all the national cable news networks combined.

Jim Vance takes a phone call in his office.

Andre Chung for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Gunner of Harley-Davidsons, slayer of hundreds of king and sockeye salmon each summer outside of Ketchikan, Alaska, connoisseur of tequila, jazz and the good life, Vance began wearing a golden hoop earring in his left ear in 2006 after the death of his friend Bradley, who had worn one.

“He was such a … man,” said Rock Newman, host of The Rock Newman Show and the former boxing manager for Riddick Bowe. “He was such a cool character. Sinatra-like. When he did my show, he walked in with some beautiful sweater, leather coat over it and jeans on. That’s some cool s—.

“No matter who you were, how much money you had, what color you were, you saw Jim and you smiled. He was a magnet for everybody.”

He also wasn’t afraid to be polarizing. Vance emotionally advocated for Washington’s NFL team to change its name in 2013 in his Vance’s Views forum — even though the team had a business partnership with the station that had dated back decades.

CBS’ James Brown, a D.C. native, credits Vance with pushing him toward broadcasting during a lunch they had in the early 1970s. “I was trying to seek safety in the multitude of counsel, deciding whether I should stick with the corporate route or pursue my passion, broadcasting. He said to go with what I really wanted to do, that nothing would take the place of that. I still remember that, that he was one of those sage voices that took the time to reach out to a literal nobody at the time. And he was like that with everybody.”

Donnie Simpson, the District’s DJ for life, moved from Detroit to Washington 40 years ago. His first radio gig in D.C. was housed in the same building as NBC4.

“When I saw that anchor desk, all those black faces — Jim, Sue Simmons, Martin Wyatt, the sports anchor at the time — and Jim Vance was the lead? All I could think was, damn, this was the Chocolate City. Black folks really do have some standing in this city. And Jim Vance represented that.”

Craig Melvin, a former NBC4 reporter and now an anchor with NBC and MSNBC, recalled that when he was hired at WRC in 2008, he was told, matter-of-factly, “You gotta get Jim Vance to bless you.”

When Melvin finally introduced himself, Vance said, “I know who you are. I know why you’re here. Meet me at this address.” He then slid a small piece of paper across the table with the address on it. “Best steaks in the District. I’ll meet you there between shows at 7:30.”

“I’m fairly nervous, to say the least,” Melvin said. “I get there early because it’s Jim Vance. But there’s no steakhouse. Just an interesting-looking building with an awning.” A brawny doorman brought Melvin to a private room.

“Then he walks in — in a top coat, top hat, lookin’ cool as s—,” Melvin said. “He sits me down in a corner. It’s then I realized where we were.”

Vance had had Melvin meet him at a strip bar called Camelot. “We sat there. We talked over what was, surprisingly, a pretty good steak.”

“I was testing you,” Vance finally said. “A punk would’ve walked in here and turned right around. But you’re my kind of guy.”

Kathy Vance knew the deal.

“He had his flaws, his demons, and they were his undoing,” she said. “But on the other side of that he lived the life he wanted, and he left a lot of good behind.

“The thing I remember is he looked you in the eye when you spoke to him and talked as if he was really, really listening to you — because he was. … He read people. And he responded. He didn’t wait for you to tell him who you were.”

The irony is Jim Vance didn’t know who he was until much later in life. And even when he found out, he still perplexed the ones he loved.

“I think I’ll be asking questions for decades to come about who he really was,” Kathy said.

Jim Vance was 75 years old. He is survived by Kathy, three children from two previous marriages, a daughter-in-law, three grandchildren and everyone who ever saw him grace the television of their family room.

March on Washington Film Fest features 9th Wonder, Diahann Carroll and Eric Holder This year’s festival looks at civil rights across sports, entertainment, higher education and the legal system

The March on Washington Film Festival returns this month for its fifth year of celebrating films that explore themes of civil rights, activism and social justice.

Panels and events including actress Diahann Carroll, producer 9th Wonder and former Attorney General Eric Holder are among the highlights of the 21 events that run from July 13-22.

Holder will be on hand for a couple of events. He’s part of a panel discussing Walk With Me: The Trials of Damon J. Keith before an invitation-only audience July 20 at the Supreme Court. And he and his wife, Sharon Malone, will be presenting writer Ta-Nehisi Coates with the Vivian Malone Courage Award on July 15. Vivian Malone, Sharon’s sister, was one of two students who integrated the University of Alabama in 1963 and became its first black graduate in 1965.

Carroll will be attending to support a documentary-in-progress co-directed by her daughter, Suzanne Kay. Festivalgoers will get a glimpse of the film from Kay and Margo Speciale about The Ed Sullivan Show and its importance in introducing America to black artists. Sullivan faced threats and boycotts for integrating his variety show, one of the most watched programs in America, but he persisted nevertheless. The full documentary is expected to be completed in 2018.

9th Wonder, the ear behind Jay-Z’s Black Album, Kendrick Lamar’s Damn., and Anderson .Paak’s Malibu, will be on hand to discuss The Hip-Hop Fellow (2014) with the Kennedy Center’s new director of hip-hop programming, Simone Eccleston, on July 21. The Hip-Hop Fellow follows 9th Wonder (also known as Patrick Douthit) as a fellow at Harvard’s Hip-Hop Research Institute, where he also taught for the 2012-13 school year. Among the records that 9th Wonder selected to be archived in Harvard’s Loeb Music Library: A Tribe Called Quest‘s The Low End Theory, Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Nas’ Illmatic and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly.

This year’s festival also marks the introduction of the Freedom’s Children Student Journalists Competition. Earlier this year, students from around the country submitted work for the chance to cover the festival for various journalism outlets. The Undefeated is participating and will be running work from the winners.

Also worth a gander:

Olympic Pride, American Prejudice

Deborah Riley Draper’s 2016 documentary, narrated by Blair Underwood, looks beyond Jesse Owens to the 17 other black American athletes who participated in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, some of whom also won medals at the Games.

Scarred Justice: The Orangeburg Massacre 1968

When many people think of violent clashes between college students and the police, the horrors of Kent State spring to mind. But Scarred Justice: The Orangeburg Massacre 1968, the 2008 film from directors Bestor Cram and Judy Richardson, reveals the history and context behind a standoff at South Carolina State University in 1968, when South Carolina Highway Patrol officers killed three protesters and injured 27 others who were demonstrating for the desegregation of an Orangeburg bowling alley.

Winnie

Director Pascale Lamche’s 2017 documentary about the freedom fighter and former wife of Nelson Mandela premiered this year at Sundance. Winnie Mandela sat for four interviews in two years with Lamche, and the result is a look at her fight against apartheid in South Africa and the toll it took on her and her marriage. The festival will host a discussion at the National Museum of Women in the Arts on July 19 with poet Elizabeth Alexander and Gay McDougall of the U.N. Committee for Ending Racial Discrimination.

Festival attendees can check out the full event lineup and purchase passes and tickets at http://marchonwashingtonfilmfestival.org.

This article has been changed to correct the number of events and the relationship of Vivian and Sharon Malone.

Veronica Chapman’s new children’s book is about helping black girls dream big ‘I Know I Can!’ stars a confident little girl named Faith

While at Spelman College in Atlanta, Veronica N. Chapman figured out two things: She wanted to help young black girls and she was destined to use words to inspire them. The 35-year-old author and entrepreneur is now doing both. She just finished her second book, I Know I Can!, a powerful children’s book that introduces a young dreamer, thinker and doer named Faith.

“Faith is this super courageous pro who has these vivid dreams of traveling the world and meeting historical figures,” Chapman said. “She is basically the high school valedictorian and she’s talking about the places she wants to go, like Cuba and South Africa and France, and the historical figures she dreams of having the chance to meet. For one example, she had a classical piano lesson with Nina Simone, who tells her that she’s young, gifted and black.”

Troubled by the insidious messages that young black girls are assaulted with, Chapman decided to take a stand by creating the counternarrative in I Know I Can! She is no stranger to the worlds of art and activism. She is the founder of Boxxout, an organization that provides educational workshops for teens. Her first book was titled The Advent of Planet Martyr, and she can add playwright to her resume for Ancestors Inc., in which she reflects themes that showcase her commitment to the community and youth.

The New Jersey native earned a bachelor’s degree in Spanish from Spelman and a master of business administration degree from Babson College in Massachusetts. Chapman, who now lives in Boston, spoke with The Undefeated about her new book, giving back to the community, her experience attending a historically black college and empowering young girls.


How did you come up with Faith?

The initial idea for the story came my graduation week. I do educational programming for teenagers, and so while doing the programming around self-esteem, I kind of think about ways to empower young children, especially girls, so that by the time I work with them they’re feeling empowered and confident in what they can accomplish.

How did writing I Know I Can! differ from writing your first book?

The first one, I was right out of college and I had just come from traveling in Spain and France. I was a bit culture-shocked and it was just a lot going on, so it was more of like a social commentary. It was a way for me to track all the experiences I had traveling out of the country and in the country and just kind of like, in a creative way, explained my experiences and the way I was feeling. That was a definitely … it was definitely a totally different book, because it was a social commentary, it had some poems in it, a short story, and it had a play in it that I produced, called Ancestors Inc., which is a motivational play for teenagers. That was a different thing, but the same thing [in finding] a creative way to address social justice issues.

I would say that the children’s book is the same, actually. She meets Dr. King and he tells her to continue to fight for economic justice, so there’s still a social justice component but it’s colorful, it is motivating and empowering. When people finish reading, they’re just like, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ They feel really great, which is what I really wanted to do.

How was your experience at Spelman as a Spanish major?

I had a really great teacher for my first class. She recommended that I go to a place called Middlebury College in Vermont, where they have an immersion for foreign languages, so I went there one summer after my freshman year. You have to sign up, as you only speak the language that you had to learn; even if you don’t have a vocabulary, you have to figure it out. By the time I left there, I came back and I was in junior-level Spanish because it was that effective as a teaching mechanism. … I studied in France and Mexico, and I got to go to Cuba right after graduation. Learning languages really opened up my world. Then, the following summer, I went back to Middlebury to study French.

After college, did you go straight into entrepreneurship?

No. I come from a family of entrepreneurs, so my father owned a car dealership in Staten Island and he wanted me to kind of come and see if it was something I was interested in doing. I went through, like, a car dealer training program to learn every aspect of the business, and then I realized that I was not interested in it. Right around that time is when I came out with my first book, and I decided that I wanted to go to business school this time while finding creative ways to empower, especially young people.

What inspired you to really dive into helping young people?

Spelman College, again. When I was at Spelman, I founded a chapter of an organization that would define creative ways to teach the principles … let’s just say, like, teach entrepreneurship principles to children in the West End of Atlanta and any schoolchildren. So I created a team, and we would spend hours and hours finding creative ways to go into schools, host events on campus, teaching young people principles of entrepreneurship, and as part of this organization you have competitions.

That was the first time I got exposed to finding creative ways to educate and empower, because of my founding that chapter on campus. Ever since then, I’m just like, ‘Oh, this is so much fun.’ You know? Let me figure out how to do this, keep doing it. That’s how the first book came along, and the play in particular, because I produced that once as a fundraiser for my local Urban League chapter in New Jersey.

Where did your love for storytelling come from?

I like to spread joy. I compliment strangers. It just makes people’s day. It’s something so small that you can do to make people’s day. Just wanting to educate and empower young people so that they feel confident in themselves, so that their contributions to the world can be even greater. That’s something that I really am committed to.

What cultural value do you see in your writing?

One cultural value is that there’s so many messages that are negative, especially when it comes to black kids. This is multilayered because, even though I wrote for children, I get a lot of feedback from adults. Adults have pride in front of you reading it, and you never really know why. For me, it’s a book, it’s happy.

There’s value of just writing something that’s empowering and educational and which broadens the awareness of the reader. That’s something that’s intended. Then, there’s the unintended. I didn’t realize that an adult would be as impacted by the children’s book.

What was the hardest part of the book?

I would even say the actual first page, even though it was written over 10 years ago. I was actually in the kitchen cooking … and then just the first page came to my mind and I wrote it down. I was like, ‘You know, one day I’m gonna use this. It’s gotta be a good book. It’s gotta be a good story.’ All these years later I was on Instagram, and I saw the illustrations of an artist, her name is Daveia Odoi, she is the illustrator. I looked at her work and I said, ‘You know what? Daveia is the one who can really bring this story to life.’ Her work is joyful, it’s all smiles, and is really awesome and playful and joyful.

What inspires you?

I really love music, and I really love to see people using their talents for the betterment of society. Every day I ask myself, ‘OK. Let me check in with what I’m here to do, and if I’m doing it,’ like what I’m on earth to do and if I’m doing it. I love to be around people who are in that same mindset, like how to use our talents and gifts for the betterment of the world. I’m inspired by people who do that well.

What are your favorite songs right now?

There’s a young artist out of Toronto named Daniel Caesar, I think he’s supertalented. I’m listening to him. I love anything Jazmine Sullivan, ’cause she’s awesome. Anything she’s on is great. I’m really into Motown. My mom is from Detroit, so anything Motown.

What do you think the future is for black writers of children’s stories?

I self-published my children’s book, so that means I had to find an illustrator, find a book designer and hire all these people to make sure it was professionally done. There are so many more awesome authors now focusing on creating children’s books with characters of color, which is really great to see. It’s also great that people aren’t only relying on the publishing houses to try to get their work out; they’re not being stopped by like rejection letters anymore. Obviously, there are some that have had to go through a publishing house, but if you have a message and if you have the right people in place, you can create a work of art that is a book that is exceptionally done. A lot people are taking those steps, and because of that there are more books available for especially black kids, black children, that were not available even like four or five years ago. That’s wonderful, I think.

How do you feel about e-books versus print books?

Kids are born brilliant now, so if they can use an iPad by the time they’re 3, I think it’s great to have that option. If they’re in the car or something, they tend to be on these devices anywhere, so that’s good to have that option. From what I hear, from parents, the preference is still physical books. They want to create a library for their children. It’s good to have it as available because it’s usually the cheapest option, in terms of price.

What are your plans for future projects?

When you do something that people love, they’re always like, more, more. You know? ‘We want more.’ Right now, just two weeks ago I had a photo shoot because I got some ‘Dream big’ T-shirts with the characters’ faces that say the key messages: ‘Dream big’ and ‘I know I can.’ The young girls modeling them were so excited between having this book and having this shirt that reinforced the message, that was really exciting for them. I’m also in the process of developing a doll of the character and just exploring other themes.

I had I Know I Can! translated into Spanish, Portuguese, to reach the young people that asked for it. Every country I’ve been to, I’ve seen we face similar experiences within a nation, and just exploring additional languages to publish it in. I’m looking forward to, in the next couple years, doing some readings in like Panama, Cuba or Brazil. So just trying out different ways of reaching other people. I’m really looking forward to that part.

The SEED Project’s annual fundraiser was the premier party for 2017 NBA draft week The program develops African basketball and academic talent and the importance of giving back

On June 21 more than 300 exclusive guests entered the Marquee New York dance and nightclub for the 5th Annual Seed Summer Party, a fundraiser that helps raise money for more than 2,000 students in Senegal, Gambia and the United States participating in the SEED Project.

The West African-themed upscale shindig has become one of New York’s premier summer pre-NBA draft events. The West African vibes, food from celebrity chef Pierre Thiam, and an exclusive private auction, were all in the name of fun and philanthropy.

The SEED (Sport for Education and Economic Development) Project is an international nongovernmental organization that uses sports, specifically basketball, as a way to identify, cultivate and educate leaders. According to its website, SEED works to maximize student potential in educational activities while emphasizing leadership and social responsibility. The organization is based in Senegal and serves 2,000 youths a year, ages 6 to 19, with boarding and after-school athletic, academic and leadership programs in accordance with the principles of education, life skills and responsible citizenship.

NBA vice president and managing director for Africa, Amadou Gallo Fall, said the event fared very well.

“It’s always exciting to, first of all, see those young men and women who’ve been through the program, the SEED Project in Senegal, as they move on to have an opportunity to pursue their education, get a college degree, and continue to play basketball,” Fall said. “To have them come to New York and share their stories with supporters and people who are interested in finding out more about what SEED is about. They [SEED team in New York] did a fantastic job, just a great location and a great turnout. We’re pleased.”

Since 2002, 92 percent of the Seed Project’s graduates have attended university or secured a job upon leaving the program. Fifty-nine percent of graduates have earned scholarships to attend U.S.-based universities.

Fall said the most important aspect of the SEED Project is for it to continue to be in a position to “provide opportunity for young boys and girls who have a passion and a desire to achieve big things, just a holistic approach in terms of using basketball as a conduit to really impact these young lives.”

“At the end of the day, it’s about motivating these young people to have an interest, to take on their responsibility in terms of what they can contribute to the future of Africa,” Fall explained. “I’ve always told them, if Africa’s ever going to have a chance of true development, it has to be able to rely on its youth, which are the biggest asset, more than 65 percent of the population, and it’s only going to get younger in the future. SEED’s mission is really to use basketball to empower and get these young people to focus on their education and learning to be good citizens and having a sense of responsibility towards their community.

“So the most important things for me is just to see them continue to grow as human beings. I think sports come third in bottom row there. Obviously, the values of the game of basketball teach them to be disciplined, to set goals, and learn to work as a team.”

In May, the NBA and SEED Project announced the official opening of NBA Academy Africa, an elite basketball training center in Thies, Senegal, for the top male and female prospects from throughout Africa. NBA Academy Africa is the first of its kind on the continent. Twelve elite male prospects will be selected following scouting programs conducted with local federations across Africa and elite skills camps hosted in Thies that started in May and will end in December. All 12 prospects will receive scholarships and training at NBA Academy Africa.

Besides NBA Academy Africa, the NBA and SEED Project also announced their plan to launch a new NBA Academy Africa facility in Saly, Senegal, for elite male prospects from throughout Africa, scheduled to open in the fall. When the new facility in Saly opens, SEED Project’s facility in Thies will house and train female prospects and younger male prospects.

Courtesy of SEED Project

According to a press release, NBA Academy Africa will employ a holistic, 360-degree approach to player development that focuses on education, leadership, character development and life skills. As part of the program, the students will compete against top competition throughout the year and will have an opportunity to be selected for travel teams that play in international tournaments and exhibition games.

NBA Academy Africa builds on the NBA’s existing basketball and youth development initiatives in Africa, including Jr. NBA programs for boys and girls ages 16 and under in Cameroon, Congo, Kenya, Morocco, Mozambique, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Tanzania, Uganda, Senegal and South Africa. Basketball Without Borders (BWB), the NBA and FIBA’s global basketball development and community outreach program, has been held in Africa 14 times, with nine former BWB Africa campers drafted into the NBA.

Fall said he feels blessed to see the growth of SEED across Africa.

“The work we are doing at NBA Africa in some many ways dovetails with what I’ve started at SEED,” he explained. “It’s really, really an exciting time for basketball in general, but especially for us. Just humbled and blessed for the opportunity to work with such brilliant group of young people who, undoubtedly, all we’re doing is just provide the enabling factor for them to have a chance to be successful in life, first and foremost. Some of them, yes, will achieve big things in basketball, but that’s really the cherry on the top of the cake, I say.”

Fall’s journey plays out in the narrative of how the SEED Project began.

“It’s really my story, how I stumbled into basketball many, many years ago. I was helped by a generous soul, somebody who was with the Peace Corps who saw me play and helped me get a scholarship to come to the U.S. It opened my eyes to the power of sports, and also opened doors for me to meet unbelievable people along the way,” he said. “I found a career in basketball even after a short college career. I just endeavored from that point on to figure out a way to give back, especially replicating my story and we’re able to do that with number of other young people. Ultimately, we thought coming up with an organization which sole mission would be how to use sports as a conduit to socioeconomic development.

“That’s how SEED came about. SEED’s going to be 20 years old in 2018, so that’s an amazing … 20 years later seeing all the young people who have been imparted. We just want to make sure that they all continue to focus on having the duty to give back, to inspire the next generation,” said Fall. “It’s great to see now that people who are running the organization instantly are all young people that we’ve crossed paths with many, many years ago who are coming to basically carry on the torch. The mission remains the same. What is exciting is to see now people who have gone through the program coming back and taking it to even greater heights.”

In conversation: Dr. Willie Parker discusses his ‘Life’s Work,’ reproductive rights and spirituality He’s an OB-GYN who performs abortions. He’s also a devoted Christian.

Dr. Willie Parker is an obstetrician and gynecologist who grew up in poverty in the Wylam neighborhood of Birmingham, Alabama. He became a born-again Christian when he was 15, and at age 55 he remains fiercely committed to his faith.

He also provides abortions.

Parker does not see those things as diametrically opposed. Quite the opposite: Parker’s Christian faith informs his work as a provider of abortion care, so much so that he wrote a book about it. Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice was published this week. What pulses through every page of Life’s Work is a sense of Christian-driven compassion and a firsthand understanding of how poverty shapes people’s lives in ways they don’t even necessarily see or understand. He speaks in the vernacular of the Bible Belt, and his faith was shaped by the writing and theology of Martin Luther King Jr., whom Parker sees as his “personal saint … [his] conscience’s mentor and its guide.”

37 Ink/Atria Books

“Poverty is an onerous burden, and not just because of how material need — not enough food, not enough income, to cover the bills, no secure housing or easy access to sex education or birth control — afflicts individuals and families,” Parker wrote. “People in poverty are treated as second-class citizens in this country, deprived in a generalized way of the respect and compassion that should be accorded to every human being.”

In Life’s Work, Parker explains why he left a cushy life as a professor and OB-GYN in Hawaii to travel through Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia providing abortions where abortion access is severely limited. He risks his life to do so, existing in a climate in which abortion providers are targeted by armed extremists. In November 2015, for example, a shooter attacked a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado, killing three people and injuring nine more. In 2009, Dr. George Tiller was gunned down in the foyer of his Wichita, Kansas, church.

[RELATED: Can these documentaries change the way we think about abortion?]

Parker connects his decision to provide abortions with his experiences and with the observations of the lives of the women in his own family. He also explains how anti-abortion policy disproportionately targets poor women and black and brown women. And he has words for the evangelical community, whose members show up faithfully in Washington every year to protest against abortion rights on the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade.

“To me, conscience is personal, and women as moral agents in their reproduction are no less valid simply because people disagree with them,” Parker said. “We should trust women and we should respect their decisions. If I could have you say that 500 times, I would.”


The debate over abortion has been divided into right and left, pitting secular liberals against evangelical conservatives. But you complicate that binary.

There is a real strong incentive to conform and strong punishment for dissent. Critical thinking is considered a form of dissent to a fundamentalist spirituality. What’s starting to resurface is that there are evangelicals who aren’t so dyed in the wool about traditional dogmas that you have to embrace to lay claim to a Christian identity.

I think it’s easier for people to conform to a conventional Christian understanding than it is to have to wrestle with being reality-based as they think about the world and in terms of the facts instead of the traditional myths we have to explain things. For a long time, pregnancy happened in a black box. We didn’t have ultrasound. We didn’t have any understanding about gametogenesis or sperm and egg development. It was just pregnancy was a miracle, God made the miracle happen. If God wants you to be pregnant, you’re going to be pregnant. And if God didn’t want you to be pregnant, no matter what you wanted, it wasn’t going to happen. With technology, the black box phenomenon is gone. Rather than trying to explain the world or understand the world in more complex ways that don’t compete with a sense of spirituality, it’s easier to default to those understandings that were not scientifically based.

“I want for women what I want for myself. I want self-determination. I want health. I want the ability to contribute, and I want those things as a human being.”

Berea College, where you obtained your undergraduate degree, sounds like a special place, one that didn’t see science and religion as things that had to be at odds with each other.

It was a nonsectarian Christian school. It was Christian in the sense that the founder had a prophetic and radical message based on his understanding of the Christian scripture, which basically led him to become an abolitionist. He was recently inducted into the Abolition Hall of Fame. But that mission of that school, where God has made of one blood all nations of the earth, that fundamental truth made it. There were people from all around the world. It was the place where I molted. I went in as a chubby fundamentalist caterpillar and molted and left as a butterfly.

How did your experiences there influence your approach to medicine?

When I went to Berea, I was 18-and-a-half. I had been a born-again Christian for 3 1/2 years. I had spent a little time as a lay minister in the pulpit and was very steeped, deeply, in my biblical research. It was a very concrete, literal reading of the Bible, which is very common for fundamentalists. But even before I arrived at Berea, I was intrigued with science and learning how to think for myself.

The real epiphany and breakthrough moment came when, at Berea, I had a Western civilization instructor. Berea’s a liberal arts school, and the person who taught my section was a person who had left the priesthood and married and was very much steeped in the liberation theology of Central America. That was the heyday of the Contras and the Sandinistas. Apartheid was becoming an international issue. That was the cause I dove into, having to reconcile that a lot of the megachurch movement would have its fundraising and its conferences in South Africa. I’m thinking, ‘Well, hey, most of the congregants in the mega faith movement are black. How do they feel about going to South Africa for a conference where they’d have to, in order to participate, become honorary white people?’

In that way, questions and doubt have enriched my faith, not compromised it, but it was just the thing that people who wanted me to be more conventional did not want to happen. When you start to think for yourself, you can’t stay with fundamentalist religion that is literal in its interpretation of sacred texts. I had no desire to leave my Christian understanding. It’s part of my DNA. It’s part of my culture. But I was challenged to think about it in a different way, and I think I went from a conforming Christian to a thinking one. That thinking process led me to reconcile the world that I found myself in: full of injustice, and yet feeling called to be an agent of justice. Berea helped me with that.

What is your relationship now with your church?

Right now, I don’t have a faith body in particular where I worship. The progressive politics that have to inform my worship experience, those types of faith bodies are not in large populations in the South. Just two weeks ago I did a Q&A. A large pro-life organization took out a full-page ad and made it a point, in no uncertain terms, to rebut my claim to be Christian, largely on the basis of the fact that I provide abortions. They think that there is something mutually exclusive about having compassion for women and providing their reproductive care and claiming Christian identity.

When I speak of the church, it’s the church writ large and the spiritual church versus having a relationship where I am part of a faith community, though I’m hoping to seek that out. Unless it’s a really radical, evolved, progressive local community, the likelihood that I’ll be welcome there is very low.

Do you think there’s a role for the church to play in sex education beyond abstinence-only curriculum?

I insist that there’s a role to play. The church has to become the venue where the head-heart merger occurs, especially in the African-American community, given the prominence that religiosity and spirituality play and the role the black church plays. I think Dr. [Martin Luther] King said it best. It was the statement by Dr. King where he talked about how he reconciled his spirituality and his intellect. Dr. King said that ‘science gives mankind knowledge, which is power. Religion gives mankind wisdom, which is control. The two are not enemies.’

The one denomination that does sex education the best, that I was most impressed with, is the Unitarian Universalists. They have a curriculum called Our Whole Lives, or OWL. They engage in medically accurate and age-appropriate sex education as a form of empowerment and as a form of sacralizing sexuality versus dealing with stigma and shame.

I’m a firm believer that part of deconstructing the stigma of abortion and sexuality is that the church is going to have to speak to the reality of human sexuality. The Catholic Church has made bold declarations about the role of sexuality and reproduction and contraception, and yet, in this country, 98 percent of Catholics use contraception. Either the church will be able to speak meaningfully to the important issues of people’s lives or they won’t. People will apply that tradition to the areas of their lives that seem to fit, but they will disregard it in the areas where it doesn’t. If you don’t speak to the fact that 1 in 3 women will have an abortion by the time they’re age 45 because of unplanned pregnancy, if you don’t have a different understanding about the role of contraception and the role it plays in the agency and the decision-making of women, then on the issue of reproduction, as a faith community, you’re going to be irrelevant.

Dr. Willie Parker from Dawn Porter’s documentary TRAPPED.

Courtesy of Derek Wiesehahn

Why do you think men should care about abortion rights and access? What should and can they do to protect that right?

I think they should care, not out of a sense of chivalry. They should care about them because reproduction is a human rights issue. Reproduction is complementary and cooperative between males and females. I intentionally say ‘males and females’ versus ‘men and women’ because I want to be explicit. I’m talking about reproduction. I’m not talking about gender identity. I know trans men who preserve reproductive capacity in their biology as females. I’m not challenging who’s a woman and who’s not.

Even though [cisgender] men and males can’t get pregnant, they should be no less concerned about the agency of those who do become pregnant and to make sure, in a human rights context, that that occur intentionally and safely and with the necessary resources. Men have a role to play in assuring those human rights. It’s about exploring a deeper humanity.

My role, my relationship with doing anti-patriarchal work and anti-sexist work and anti-rapist work, has to do with a similar value that Abraham Lincoln articulated when someone asked him why he freed the slaves. The Civil War occurred for multiple and complex reasons, but his sentiment around saying, ‘Simply, as I would not be a slave, so I will not be a master’ shows that to some degree, he understood and respected the humanity of enslaved Africans and wanted for them what he wanted for himself. That’s the relationship I have with reproduction and reproductive rights. I want for women what I want for myself. I want self-determination. I want health. I want the ability to contribute, and I want those things as a human being. If I’m going to explore a deeper humanity, I have work for the deconstruction of those systems that would deny women access to those things.

Do you think there’s a problem on the left when it comes to understanding religious people? Do you think they could do a better job of trying to reach those people?

Part of what’s problematic about the extreme dogmatic religion of the right is that it’s an uncritical and unthoughtful and therefore, in some ways, an uncharitable approach to religion. The left is, in many ways, operating in the same milieu. And while there’s a bit more sympathy, in some ways, it has not departed in a significant way from the extreme approach of people who are dealing with the Christian religion in a biblically literal way.

Middle-class and liberal people on the left, when they wax sentimental about motherhood, they end up aiding and abetting and unwittingly facilitating the oppression of women and poor and minorities. They end up not taking the love ethic and the challenge to pursue justice that was the religion of Jesus very seriously. The left, in its sentimentality, is far more committed to charity than justice. The right is committed, in a selfish way, to injustice.

The left is considered committed to charity, and so what it means in the approach is that the pursuit of justice becomes very anemic, even among people you would think would be more deeply engaged in justice work. I think it may be, unless they take a deeper look and do a more critical self-examination, religious people on the left are as anemic as people on the right. The most primary solutions the left battles for are political ones. Those aren’t radical enough to cause fundamental changes in the value system that would lead us to champion the appropriate policies that would remediate poverty and that would destroy gender discrimination and sexual identity discrimination.

Until [the left] can become committed to justice work, which requires a more radical departure and a different understanding of the sacred texts — if we’re going to talk about Christianity — until the left does that, we’re going to be unable to mount any significant pushback to the frank injustice that we find ourselves in the midst of with the ideologues on the right.

What pulses through every page of Life’s Work is a sense of Christian-driven compassion and a firsthand understanding of the way poverty shapes people’s lives.

The makeup of the Supreme Court directly affects you as a physician who provides abortion care, as well as your patients. What are your thoughts on [new Supreme Court justice] Neil Gorsuch?

You have a president who doesn’t understand politics and is trying to run the country like a business. The backstops have always been principled legislation backed by an impartial judiciary. For the last eight years, we had a president who would apply veto power to things that were extreme and unreasonable. Now we don’t have that backstop. The last modicum of reason is to elect justices who will have the temperament and serious respect for the law. That this president had the impression and expectation that ‘I will appoint a Supreme Court justice that will overturn Roe’ means that he didn’t take lightly who he picked.

With each appointment, the question, or at least the hope that we have, is that who appointed you will not be prognostic of how you will rule on the law if you are indeed qualified to be on the court and take the law seriously. Justice Kennedy has been the swing vote on Roe. He will continue to be the swing vote on Roe. Even with a conservative court, justices are very unwilling to go against legal precedent if the principle is firmly established. There’s nothing more firmly established than Roe over the last 44 years, even though it’s been weakened somewhat. It still remains the law of the land.

You were part of Dawn Porter’s documentary about TRAP laws, which have been ruled by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional. What other barriers do you see to abortion access?

The bugaboo that remains in place is the Hyde Amendment, which makes it illegal to use federal funds for the purpose of abortions for women who would otherwise use Medicaid or public funding to pay for their health care. For poor women, in states where they do not provide coverage for abortion care, there are major financial hurdles.

Dr. King, when he shifted to the Poor People’s Campaign, he said that it’s one thing to march for the right to sit at the lunch counter, but if you’re sitting at the lunch counter without the ability to buy a piece of pie, then you’re loitering, so you’re still in violation of the law. It’s one thing to be able to sit at the table; it’s another to be able to sit at the table with the means to secure what has you at the table. In that regard, funding is a major hurdle.

[Doing away with] targeted regulation of abortion providers doesn’t stop us from having to give bogus medical data. Those regulations don’t stop waiting periods. All of the things that go into the TRAP regulations affect just one aspect of all that goes into abortion care. That’s one victory. One legal remedy, but there are so many others that need to be addressed.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.